By Nathan Hutchinson
Register Sports Editor
In the past 11 years, only two teams have been able to go through the Ohio Valley Conference schedule without a loss.
So, it’s not likely, at least statistically, that Tennessee State will be able to do that this year.
And that’s good news for the Colonels.
After Saturday’s come-from-behind 23-20 win over EKU in Nashville, Tennessee State is the only undefeated team in the league — 6-0 overall, 2-0 OVC.
That certainly makes the Tigers the front-runners for the title. But, there are still six weeks left on the schedule.
And a lot can happen.
“It’s back to work,” EKU senior offensive lineman Aaron Adams said. “We put ourselves in this position. We lost that game. It doesn’t really matter what they do. We have to win out and see where it goes from there.”
The 23rd-ranked Colonels (4-2, 2-1 OVC) are still in the hunt, but they need to get back on track, quickly.
They will try to do just that Saturday at Roy Kidd Stadium against winless Austin Peay. The annual Homecoming game is set for 3 p.m.
“It’s hard thing to do in college football in general,” EKU coach Dean Hood said of going undefeated in conference play. “But, I think our league has a lot of parity.”
The Colonels appeared to be the class of conference until last week. EKU was the preseason OVC favorite and had opened league play with wins over two other title contenders — Jacksonville State (51-21) and UT-Martin (28-16).
Last week, the Colonels had a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers scored a touchdown with eight seconds left to cap a dramatic comeback.
The loss dropped EKU into a five-way tie for second place. Eastern Illinois, Murray State, Jacksonville State, UT-Martin and the Colonels all have 2-1 records.
At this point, only two teams are really already out of the hunt for an OVC title — Tennessee Tech (2-4, 0-3) and Austin Peay (0-6, 0-4).
Going back to the second half of last season, a solid running game, led by All-American running back Matt Denham, has been the driving force behind a pretty solid EKU offense.
The Colonels rank second in the OVC in rushing yards a game (196.5 — 23rd nationally), but their ground attack has been held in check the past two weeks. UT-Martin held EKU 123 yards on 48 carries.
Last week, TSU held the Colonels to 125 yards on 44 carries and out-gained EKU on the ground.
“Nobody has shut us down,” Hood said. “Even though we aren’t gashing people, we are still running the ball effectively. Teams still have to commit to the run and running effectively has kept us out of third-and-long situations, has kept sacks down and kept the negative yardage plays down. All that leads to good things.”
Denham had 114 yards on the ground last week, including a 4-yard touchdown run. The senior has rushed for 100 or more yards in 12 of the past 14 games and is just 178 yards away from moving into the school’s top 10 rushing leaders.
Still, its been tough going for the senior lately.
In the past two games, he’s averaging just 3.35 yards a carry.
“They’ve been junking it up,” Adams said of opposing team’s defenses. “That’s basically the best way to describe it. Sometimes jumping out of gaps and putting two people in a gap. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s just an undisciplined defense. Just jumping around and getting in the gaps where they don’t expect you to be. It’s kind of hard to deal with.”
The Governors would appear to be a perfect team to bounce back against.
Austin Peay is at the bottom or near the bottom of the OVC in almost every significant statistically category, including scoring offense (11 points a game), scoring defense (45.5 points a game), total offense (289.3 yards a game), total defense (508.8 yards a game), pass defense (361 yards a game) and turnover margin (-4).
But, the Colonels aren’t likely to take the Govs lightly.
“They always play well against us,” Hood said. “They always have a good gameplan for us and their kids play at a high level when they play against us.”
Since Hood took over the program in 2008, the Colonels have a winning record against every OVC team except Tennessee State (1-3) and Austin Peay (2-2).
Last year, the Govs ran for 201 yards and snapped a 10-game losing streak with a 23-17 win over the Colonels in Clarksville, Tenn.
After that loss, EKU won six of its final seven regular-season games, captured a share of the OVC title and received an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs.
Still, the memory of that setback remains fresh in the Colonels’ minds to this day.
“I remember the awful feeling afterward,” EKU defensive lineman Shawn Shupperd said. “I felt like we should have won that game.”
Austin Peay has not scored more than 15 points in any game this season and is coming off a 52-14 loss to Murray State last week. In four OVC games, the Govs have been out-scored 182-49.
The Colonels lead the all-time series, 39-5, and have a 20-2 advantage in games played in Richmond.